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Associating the New York Knicks with competence is another twist in an NBA season full of them, but they’ve crossed respectability and are on the precipice of something greater.
It’s not the classic tale of the sum being greater than its parts. They play hard consistently, are coached well by Tom Thibodeau and some of their wild cards are panning out.
Playing hard alone won’t get a team right behind the East favorites — Philadelphia, Brooklyn and Milwaukee — but in this truncated season where teams are clearly pacing themselves to get through the 72 as healthy as possible, it’s carried the Knicks a long way — to an eight-game winning streak.
That’s a hallmark of Thibodeau teams, but when he was hired it was thought he was a relic of a time gone by, the grinding coach who could only push his players so far, so long. The stink of the drama in Minnesota seemed to stick with him more than any other participant, but he’s always been an exceptional coach whose players empty the tank for him.
He relies heavily on his guys, the players who can spread the gospel of Thibs without coming across as corporate or corny. Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson experienced their best days in the “close but no cigar” years in Chicago, and even though their bodies have paid a price, they’re ready to come back for more.
Rose is the Knicks’ third-leading scorer, courtesy of a trade with Detroit early in the season. After years where it looked like he would quietly fade away from the game, Rose looks rejuvenated and part of the future plans.
Gibson is a no-nonsense veteran who, like Rose, sets an example by his mere presence.
Julius Randle has gone through a renaissance, showing the pairing with former coach David Fizdale was a bad fit, not that he was a bad signing. While video-game numbers are not uncommon this year, Randle’s seem to have some extra sizzle because it doesn’t feel like stat padding. He’s averaging 30 points through the win streak while grabbing nine rebounds and dishing out seven assists.
He’s embodied this new Knicks culture, playing big minutes and putting up bigger numbers as the team seems to plug away and adjust on the fly.
Their first-round draft pick, Obi Toppin, hasn’t cracked the rotation to get consistent minutes, and the most intriguing prospect coming into the season, Mitchell Robinson, just suffered a fractured right foot after battling through a hand injury early in the season.
This land of misfit toys has churned out the third-best defensive rating and gives up the fewest points in the league while being a top-five rebounding team. In this streak, they’ve been lucky and won close, but it’s not their fault collapses have happened. They’ve been good enough and prepared enough to take advantage of opportunities placed in front of them.
Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem real and it’s hard to say if it’s sustainable, but it looks like the Knicks are building something. And it’s largely been an exercise in simplicity.
Leon Rose and William “Worldwide Wes” Wesley have come in and taken over the front office, but there hasn’t been the roster-shaking moves as their signature.
General manager Scott Perry turned his attention to Randle, giving him a three-year deal when the other Knicks signees received shorter deals.
The Knicks have Randle on a team option next season at a bargain $19.8 million and one of the cleaner cap sheets in the league, with under $50 million in committed salaries for next season, creating flexibility in the trade and free-agent market this summer.
The days of giving out bad contracts to satisfy the New York market has subsided, and it started with the trade of Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas — which Perry engineered to clear cap space and acquired first-round draft picks for 2021 and 2023.
One can argue Perry’s experience as the holdover from the Steve Mills era has been as valuable as bringing in the front office star power of Rose and Wesley. He helped re-establish fractured relationships around the league, which laid the groundwork for the Knicks even believing they could get the likes of Durant and Irving in free agency.
One can assume he’s aided the two through the transition of coming from the agent side to the team operations end, and the partnership seems to be beneficial for everybody.
The last time the Knicks had a glimmer of hope, it felt artificial when Carmelo Anthony prevented LeBron James from becoming unanimous MVP in 2013. While the Knicks won their first playoff series since 2000, the upside was minimal.
Amar’e Stoudemire was breaking down physically, they’d gotten the best out of J.R. Smith and were heavily dependent on a 39-year-old point guard named Jason Kidd.
Perhaps Randle is having a similar season to Anthony’s, having taken to the newfound structure Thibodeau provides and his own professional growth. Whether he’s truly in the MVP conversation is immaterial, because his value to these Knicks is immeasurable. Watching them is watching a team that believes it can grind its way to wins and they’ve pulled some improbable ones from their behinds recently.
The Garden isn’t yet rocking again, only because those basketball-crazed fans haven’t been allowed back to capacity. But they’re at the door, and for the first time in ages, they’re not buzzards.
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